American singer and rapper Lizzo visited the Library of Congress for a tour of its flute collection. The collection includes a crystal flute once owned by the fourth president, which the library permitted Lizzo to play there and again during a concert last week.
The “About Damn Time” singer made history last month when she played a few notes on a historic crystal flute that once belonged to President James Madison.
Now, the fourth president’s estate, Montpelier, has extended an invitation to the 34-year-old star to come perform on the sprawling Virginia property he called home for 76 years, PEOPLE confirms. The invite was first reported by TMZ and Billboard.
To say that Lizzo played the flute during the concert is generous: She barely fluttered through a couple of notes before shaking her derriere like she just didn’t care.
When video of this performance circulated, some prominent conservatives saw it as a demonstration of the left’s disrespect for the American founding. “They degrade our history,” one wrote. Another claimed: “This is about humiliating white people, about desecrating American history and heritage.” While there were unfortunate elements to Lizzo’s performance, this was an overreaction; there was actually a lot to admire about the moment, according to the Wall Street Journal.
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“The incredibly talented Lizzo brought history to life when she played Madison’s flute at a packed concert in Washington, DC last week,” a Montpelier spokesperson tells PEOPLE in a statement. “We are overjoyed that Lizzo shared the now-famous instrument’s beautiful music with the world as her songs are an example of how music is a universal language that brings people together. This is exactly what Montpelier strives for: bringing Americans closer by telling a more complete American story rooted in whole truth history. Recognizing how busy Lizzo’s schedule is, both James Madison’s Montpelier and the Montpelier Descendants Committee enthusiastically welcome the superstar to bring her music to Montpelier, where we are committed to honoring the legacies of President James Madison, the U.S. Constitution, and generations of enslaved Americans,” according to PEOPLE
True, Lizzo’s suggestive dancing detracted from the historical significance of her playing an instrument that once belonged to the Father of the Constitution. So did her swearing (she really likes to swear) and her outfit, which looked like something Liberace would have designed for Richard Simmons.
Yet it’s unfair to dwell on these details without noting that she told the audience the history of the flute and also raved, “History is cool, you guys”—not exactly Thucydides, but closer to him than anything I’ve ever heard at a concert. In these ways, she showed real respect for the instrument, which makes it hard to imagine the moment as a deliberate attempt to disparage America’s past. Rather, it was a clumsy attempt to celebrate it.
A better measure of Lizzo’s attitude toward the flute and what it represents is a much more subdued video that circulated later. If the first emphasized Lizzo the Rump Shaker, the second showcased Lizzo the Flautist. Recorded at the Library of Congress, it shows Lizzo dressed more appropriately and playing the flute for longer and with more skill. She also evinces sincere joy and appreciation for the opportunity to play the instrument in one of the country’s most beautiful buildings. And although she again spoils the moment with her Rump Shaker shtick, that routine is overshadowed by the length and skill of the flute playing.
There is poignant symbolism in seeing one of the nation’s most famous performers—and a black woman—demonstrate some reverence for an instrument that once belonged to one of our nation’s most important founding figures—and a slave owner. The moment signals both America’s imperfect progress and a healthy, though flawed, appreciation of our past.
Another important detail that’s getting lost in all this: It’s remarkable that a pop star like Lizzo works the flute into her stage show. In a 2019 interview with CBS, Lizzo explained the work she put into flute practice: “I remember in the fifth grade, I just wanted to be really good. I was, like, ‘I want to be really good at the flute. Everybody else is so bad.’ And it was so hard to be good at it. It’s a very difficult instrument. I became, like, obsessed with being good.” This is an impressive work ethic, directed toward an admirable end. It’s unfortunate that she almost always diminishes these solos by twerking or cursing, perhaps because she feels pretentious, elitist or simply incongruous when she plays the instrument.
With any luck, Lizzo will incorporate the flute into her singles. There’s precedent, albeit only slightly newer than Madison’s flute: Bands from the Beatles to Beastie Boys recorded great songs with a flute, and Jethro Tull based its entire sound around the instrument. Lizzo could inspire more young fans to take up the instrument and develop their own musical abilities.
In the meantime, we should see that despite the shortcomings of Lizzo’s concert performance, she demonstrated some reverence for American history—and this was even more clear in her performance at the Library of Congress. Let’s praise her for those positive moments and be glad she encouraged, albeit imperfectly, her millions of fans to share her awe.
The flute was made for Madison ahead of his second inauguration in March 1813 by French craftsman Claude Laurent, according to the Library of Congress.
The instrument was saved from the White House by First Lady Dolley Madison in April 1814 as the British entered Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. Madison’s name is engraved on the flute’s silver joint, as well as the year it was made.
Madison’s flute was apparently passed down to John Payne Todd, Dolley Madison’s son from her first marriage, sometime in the 1800s and was eventually sold to Dayton C. Miller, an Ohio physicist and instrument collector in the early 20th century. He sold his instrument collection to the Library of Congress in 1941, the LoC’s website reads.
The Library also made sure to note that Lizzo’s performance would have no negative effects on the instrument.
“For those concerned about the flute: Music Division curators made sure it could be played without damage,” it said in a blog post. “This sort of thing is not all that unusual, in fact. Some of the Library’s priceless instruments were donated with the stipulation that they remain functional & be played.”
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Sources: TMZ, Billboard, PEOPLE, The Wall Street Journal, CBS
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